Cell Phone Search Archives | Fort Worth Criminal Defense Attorneys and Personal Injury Lawyers

Cell Phone Text Message Search Love 2016

Police Must Obtain Search Warrant to See Content of Text Messages

By | Search & Seizure

Cell Phone Text Message Search Love 2016From call logs, to cell tower info, to sent and received text messages, many criminal investigations involve the contents of a defendant’s cell phone.  Under the Stored Communications Act, cell phone providers can provide a users cell phone data to police during an active criminal investigation with a simple court order (like a subpoena).  But what about the actual content of text messages?  Can the police or the prosecutor get the actual content from those text messages with the same court order?

Capital Murder Conviction Gained After Judge Admits Content of Text Messages

Recently, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals considered a capital murder (death penalty) case in which the State relied on text message evidence during trial. During the trial, the state admitted (over defense objection) the contents of text messages sent and received by the defendant. The messages established the defendant’s presence at the scene of the murder and implied his direct involvement. The state leaned on this evidence during both its opening and closing statements in the case. The defendant was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

The Content of Text Messages are Not Covered by the Stored Communications Act

The appellant argued on appeal that while the Stored Communications Act allows the state to gain evidence of text messages sent and received, it does not allow the dissemination of the content of those messages. The appellant argued that the State should have obtained a search warrant backed by probable cause in order to get these records. The CCA agreed, drawing comparisons to the contents of letters sent in the mail and email stored on a server. Text message enjoy the same reasonable expectation of privacy and should be protected.

The Question in Love v. State is Whether Appellant had an Expectation of Privacy in his Service Provider’s Records

LOVE v. STATE (Tex. Crim. App – 2016), Majority Opinion

Judge Yeary penned the majority opinion in Love. The following excerpts are taken from the opinion:

Many courts have treated text messages as analogous to the content of an envelope conveyed through the United States mail…Admittedly, the analogy is not a perfect one…A letter remains in its sealed envelope until it arrives at its destination, and the telephone company does not routinely record private telephone conversations. But internet and cell phone service providers do routinely store the content of emails and text messages, even if they do not necessarily take the time to read them…[E]mpirical data seem to support the proposition that society recognizes the propriety of assigning Fourth Amendment protection to the content of text messages…All of this leads us to conclude that the content of appellant’s text messages could not be obtained without a probable cause–based warrant. Text messages are analogous to regular mail and email communications. Like regular mail and email, a text message has an “outside address ‘visible’ to the third-party carriers that transmit it to its intended location, and also a package of content that the sender presumes will be read only by the intended recipient…Consequently, the State was prohibited from compelling Metro PCS to turn over appellant’s content-based communications without first obtaining a warrant supported by probable cause.

Finding that “the probable impact of the improperly-admitted text messages was great,” the CCA then reversed the conviction and remanded the case back to the trial court for a new trial.

TAKEAWAY: Not all records can be gained so easily through a court order. Some require a probably cause warrant.  Is there a reasonable expectation of privacy in the message? It might take a new analysis as our media is changing daily, but it can be worth the fight.

Note: Presiding Judge Keller dissented. She did not believe that the appellant preserved this issue for appeal.

Cell Phone Images Character Evidence

Satanic Cell Phone Images Admitted as Relevant Character Evidence

By | Sentencing

Second Court of Appeals Holds that Satanic Cell Phone Photos Were Relevant Character Evidence in Punishment Phase for Attempted Capital Murder Case


Cell Phone Images Character EvidencePantoja v. State (2nd Court of Appeals – Fort Worth, 2016)

A Cocaine-Fueled Binge Leads to an Attack

During an alcohol and cocaine-fueled binge, nineteen-year-old Rigoberto Pantoja attacked a group of friends in Mansfield, Texas one evening in September of 2014. After watching the Floyd Mayweather fight, Pantoja began talking to himself. Eventually, he pulled a gun and fired two times, hitting Pantoja’s friend in the face. Pantoja put the gun to the head of a second friend, but when the gun would not fire, Pantoja pulled a knife, stabbing the friend three times. He also stabbed a third friend. All of the victims survived the injuries. Pantoja was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and attempted capital murder.

At trial, Pantoja pled guilty to the aggravated assault and attempted capital murder charges before a judge. Pantoja requested a jury for the punishment phase of his trial, asking that the jury grant him community supervision (probation). At the punishment phase, the State called twelve character witnesses; Pantoja’s defense counsel called four, including his father who was set to testify about Pantoja’s Catholic upbringing and religious way of life.

Just before the defense called Pantoja’s father to the stand, and out of the presence of the jury, the State indicated to the Court that it intended to cross-examine Pantoja’s father about satanic images found on Pantoja’s cell phone, confiscated the night he was arrested. The Judge told the State to proceed with calling witnesses and that “whenever you are ready to ask question [regarding the satanic photos], approach up here and then I’ll make a ruling at that time.” After that conversation, the jury returned to the courtroom.

Cross-Examination Regarding the Defendant’s Cell Phone Images

The defense called Pantoja’s father who testified to Pantoja’s good nature. He said that his son helped around the house and helped out with the family’s living expenses. Pantoja’s father also spoke of his son’s strong Catholic faith and upbringing. The defense admitted photos from the father of Pantoja’s first communion, photos of Pantoja’s bedroom with a Virgin of Guadalupe poster on the wall, and photos of Pantoja’s car depicting a rosary hanging from the rearview mirror. The State cross-examined Pantoja’s father, asking, “Were you aware that your son kept pictures of satanic worship on his cell phone?” The father responded, “no.”

The jury assessed Pantoja’s punishment at eighty years’ confinement for both offenses, denying Pantoja’s request for community supervision. Pantoja timely appealed to the Second Court of Appeals, arguing that the satanic photos shown to the jury were highly prejudicial, had no probative value whatsoever, did not establish a material fact that related to any element of his offenses, and ultimately were not relevant to his case and sentencing.

Did the Trial Court Err By Allowing the Satanic Images to Go Before the Jury?

The Second Court of Appeals had to determine whether the trial court should have stopped the State’s cross-examination of Pantoja’s father regarding the Satanic images found on Pantoja’s cell phone. Did the photos have relevance to the case under the Texas Rules of Evidence? If so, were the photos highly prejudicial to the jury?

The Texas Rules of Evidence


Article 37.07 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure states that, “evidence may be offered by the State and the defendant as to any matter the court deems relevant to sentencing, including…his character [and] an opinion regarding his character…” Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. Art. 37.07, § 3(a)(1) (West Supp. 2015). Evidence is relevant to a punishment determination if that evidence will assist the fact-finder in tailoring an appropriate sentence. Henderson v. State, 29 S.W.3d 616, 626 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.]2000, pet. ref’d.

Community Supervision

When a defendant requests community supervision, a trial court may reasonably deem any character trait that pertains to the defendant’s suitability for community supervision to be a relevant matter for the sentencer to consider. Sims v. State, 273 S.W.3d 291, 295 (Tex. Crim. App. 2008).

Character Evidence and Opinion Testimony

When character evidence is admissible—as in a community supervision request during the punishment phase—such character traits may be proven by testimony in the form of an opinion. Tex. R. Evid. 405(a); Wilson v. State, 71 S.W.3d 346, 349-51 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002). An opinion witness is generally to be asked “did you know” questions. Id. at 350.

Cross Examination of Character Witnesses

On cross-examination of a character witness, inquiry may be made about specific incidents of a person’s conduct, subject to the following limitations. Id. at 351.

  1. The incident must be relevant to the character traits at issue. Burke v. State, 371 S.W.3d, 252, 261 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2011, pet. ref’d, untimely filed).
  2. The alleged Bad Act must have a basis in fact. Id.
  3. Before the questions are asked, the foundation for asking the question should be laid outside of the jury’s presence, so that the judge will have an opportunity to rule on them. Id.

The Second Court of Appeals Finds No Error

Here, the Court says that the father’s testimony about Pantoja’s strict Catholic upbringing and religious faith constituted “opinion” character testimony. Additionally, the Court says, his testimony was relevant under the Texas Rules of Evidence, pertinent to the request made for community supervision, as “a sentencer might rationally want to take into account testimony of his good character and that he had a stable home life…and that he possess an indicia of a religious upbringing.”

Further, this character testimony was provided by the defense. Because the defense called the father as a character witness, the State had the right to cross-examine the father “through did-you-know questions” about Pantoja’s character. “The State had the proper predicate for it’s ‘did you know’ question by establishing outside the presence of the jury the factual basis for the specific instances of Pantoja’s conduct (the satanic cell phone photos).” The Court overruled Pantoja’s appeal, and affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

Texting While Driving Cell Phone Search

Driving While InTEXTicated: Hand Over Your Cell Phone or Lose Your License

By | Search & Seizure

Lawmakers and Forensic Engineers Introduce the Textalyzer to Combat Distracted Driving in New York

Texting While Driving Cell Phone SearchDid you talk on your mobile phone while driving to work this morning? Check your email? Have you ever asked Siri for help selecting a restaurant for dinner while you are driving around a new city? What about the urgent text from your boss—did you glance at that while driving? Ideally, we should answer each question with an emphatic, “No!” However, we don’t live in an ideal world—many drivers on Texas roads are distracted by mobile devices every time they drive. Just look over at the driver next to you and you’ll see it.

Distraction.gov, the official government website for distracted driving statistics, reports that in 2014, over 3,000 people were killed in the United States by distracted drivers. To combat the growing problem, lawmakers in New York are reviewing proposed legislation that would allow police to obtain the mobile devices of each person involved in a car accident for immediate testing by a Textalyzer.

What is the Textalyzer?

The Textalyzer is a mobile kiosk installed into law enforcement vehicles. The Textalyzer helps law enforcement determine whether someone involved in a car accident was distracted by a mobile device at the time of the accident. Created by the Israeli-based mobile forensics technology firm, Cellebrite, the Textalyzer, known in the techie world as the “UFED InField Kiosk,” conducts a scan of the phone to determine whether the device’s voice, text, or data features were used at the time of an auto accident.

According to Cellebrite’s UFED InField Kiosk datasheet, “officers and investigators can conduct a forensically sound, logical extraction of mobile device text messages, call logs, emails, etc., and quickly view and act decisively on potential evidence.” Almost every type of mobile device can be accessed by the UFED InField Kiosk, “the UFED Series is able to extract, decode, analyze and report data from thousands of mobile devices, including, smart phones, legacy and feature phones, portable GPS devices, tablets, memory cards and phones manufactured with Chinese chipsets.”

The New York Law | New York Senate Bill S6325A

In New York, Senate Bill S6325A is currently “in committee” but progressing with strong support. If signed into law, it would require drivers who have had car accidents to provide law enforcement with all of their mobile devices so that police could conduct a Textalyzer scan on the device at the scene. Although the Textalyzer is able to “scrape” all of the data from a phone, the mobile kiosks in New York would only be able to tell law enforcement whether the device was used and at what time, circumventing some Fourth Amendment privacy arguments. Information obtained at the scene would likely become evidence to be used in a case against the owner of the mobile device. Motorists who are found “guilty” will face more serious charges and tougher penalties than those found not guilty of being distracted.  If a motorist refuses to provide his or her cell phone to police officers for inspection, the new law provides that the person’s driver’s license could be suspended (similar to the refusal of breath or blood testing in a DWI context).

The bill began as a result of intense lobbying in part by the Distracted Operators Risk Casualties group, a group focused on creating tougher laws and stricter penalties for distracted drivers to protect innocent people from injuries caused by distracted driving. The co-founder of the group lost his son to distracted driving.

Mobile Forensics Data Collection and Analysis Creates Many Unanswered Legal Questions

The technology to “check” each of our phones at the scene of a car accident is here. The question remains—what will lawmakers decide to do with it? Further, unless legislatures provide clarification it, it will be up to the courts to wade through ambiguities. For example, what if drivers use “hands-free” options on mobile devices while operating a motor vehicle—how is such use different from using the radio or talking with a passenger—isn’t radio use just as distracting? Or what if a driver is distracted by a device and passes that device to a passenger after having an accident? Further, what if a distracted driver does not disclose he possesses a mobile device? What if a distracted driver has two phones, but only discloses one of the phones—the phone he wasn’t distracted by—to law enforcement? The “what ifs” are endless.

The Fourth Amendment protects from unreasonable searches and seizures—will the data itself (contact lists, the context of text messages, music playlists, the content of email, etc) be collected? If so, could the content of the data be held against a “distracted driver” in other court cases? Will we, perhaps, lose any reasonable expectation privacy altogether in our phones? Safety or privacy—which do you value more? Currently, Texas does not have a law like this in the works, but it could only be a matter of time if other states continue with this trend.

Recording Conversations Wiretapping Texas

Can I Record a Conversation Without the Other Party’s Consent in Texas?

By | Criminal Defense

Recording Conversations Without Consent in Texas | Wiretapping Laws

Recording Conversations Wiretapping TexasWith red light cameras at nearly every street corner, video surveillance in businesses and homes, web cams on computers, and recording capabilities on mobile phones – we must navigate carefully in a digital world. We’ve seen titillating news reports exposing a secret audio tape of a public figure having scandalous phone conversations, or video surveillance of questionable traffic stops that escalate in shocking fashion. You may have had a suspicious feeling that you were being recorded, or on the other hand, felt as if you needed to record a conversation with another for your own protection.

With privacy seemingly harder to come by as compared with days long past—what does Texas law say about recording conversations? Is it illegal to record a phone conversation with another person? What about in person?

The short answer is: YES, you can record a conversation with another person without that person’s consent. But this answer requires more explanation.

Recording Phone Calls in Texas | Texas is a One-Party Consent State

Under Texas Law, it is a crime intercept or record any wire, oral or electronic communication without the consent of at least one party. The good news is that you count as one party and if you’re recording then you have probably given yourself consent to record the conversation. Generally speaking, state wiretapping laws turn on whether the state is a one-party consent state. While some states require the consent of all of the parties to a conversation prior to recording, Texas permits the recording of telephone calls, so long as the consent of one of the parties is obtained. As stated, if you are one of the parties on the phone call, then you may consent to having your own conversation recorded—you need not alert the other party. Additionally, a parent may give vicarious consent to the recording of a child’s conversation if the parent has a good faith objectively reasonable belief that the recording is necessary for the welfare of the child.

However, if during a phone call there are multiple parties who are in different states, then be aware that other state laws may require pre-recording consent of all of the parties. In this scenario, if the recording party obtains consent from the other parties before the recording begins, then the recorder is not in violation of wiretapping laws.

See this link to learn more about the various state wiretapping laws.

Recording In-Person Conversations in Texas | Can I Record Someone Else’s Public Conversation?

Texas law (Penal Code §16.02) does not permit you to record in-person communications when the parties have an expectation that such communication is not subject to interception (i.e. If there is a reasonable expectation of privacy). If you wish to record a conversation to which you are not a party, all of the parties must give consent before the recording device is turned on. If you are a party to the conversation, record away.

Further, you are able to record in-person communication at a public place, like a mall food court or at a football game for example, where parties do not have the expectation of privacy. Remember—if you say it in a public place, within earshot of others who may overhear, you do not have an expectation of privacy in those statements. Generally, such statements may be recorded without violating that state’s wiretapping laws.

A Word of Caution of Recording Conversations in Texas

Please be aware that there are both federal and state wiretapping laws that may limit your ability to making recordings of telephone calls or in person conversations. This article addresses state wiretapping laws in Texas only. Additionally, if a person has violated a state or federal wiretapping statute, he may be both charged criminally and be sued civilly by the damaged party.

Further, while a person may have successfully recorded a conversation under state and federal wiretapping laws, the act of disclosing the recording to other third parties could be, in and of itself, punishable criminally or civilly under other legal theories (such as slander, for example).

If you are faced with a wiretapping charge, or have questions about wiretapping, please contact an attorney who will address both the state and federal regulations as they are related to the facts of your specific case. Wiretapping charges are potentially serious felonies that could land a person in jail or prison, with fines ranging from $200 to $10,000. If you are faced with charges related to wiretapping in Texas, please contact our offices at (817) 993-9249 for a consultation.

Summary on Texas Wiretapping

  • A person can record a conversation to which you are a party in Texas without violating wiretapping laws, so long as the other party is in a “one party consent” state.
  • A person can record a conversation (to which he is not a party) if one of the participants gives him permission.
  • A person can record a conversation when, in a public setting, the participants do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
  • It is almost always illegal to record a phone call or private conversation to which one is not a party, does not have consent from at least one of the parties, and could not naturally overhear the conversation.

This article is for educational purposes only and should never be substituted for legal advice.

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Cell Tower Records Criminal Defense

Murder Case Hinges on the Privacy of Cell Tower Records

By | Murder

Was it an Unlawful Warrantless Search Under the 4th Amendment for the DA to Obtain Cell Tower Records From a Third Party and Use Them Against a Defendant Charged with Murder?

Ford v. State (2015) | San Antonio Murder Mystery

JCell Tower Records Criminal Defenseon Ford and Dana Edwards dated off and on for two years in the small town of Alamo Heights, Texas. After a long break-up, the former couple saw each other at a friend’s New Year’s Eve party. The group of friends drank heavily and played “Apples to Apples,” an interactive game that required the participants to reveal their thoughts on personal topics. During the game, the subject of marriage came up and Ford was singled out about his on-again-off-again relationship with Edwards. Angry, Ford left the party before everyone else.

The next day, Edwards’s parents were expecting her in Fredericksburg, but she never showed. Worried, her parents drove to her condo, where they found her dead. Because she sustained lacerations and trauma to her head, the police opened up a murder investigation.

The State Gathers Evidence

On January 2nd, Ford volunteered to give a statement. In his statement, Ford said he left the party around 11:30 pm, went home, and fell asleep. Ford said that his new cell phone had been in his possession the entire night.

The investigators obtained video footage of the streets bordering Edwards’s condo, footage that conflicted with Ford’s official statement. At 11:24 pm, the camera captured a white SUV, similar to Ford’s vehicle, turn into the victim’s condo complex. At 1:00 am, Edwards’s car entered the complex. At 3:16 am, with the headlamps turned off, the white SUV exited the complex. No one could definitively say the white SUV belonged to Ford, as the license plate and registration stickers could not be determined because of the quality of the video.

A week later, the San Antonio District Attorney’s Office filed an application under Article 18.21 § 5(a) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, and in compliance with Communications Act, to obtain Ford’s historical cell-site-location records from AT&T Wireless.

Ford’s Case Goes to Trial

At trial, a radio network engineer from AT&T Wireless testified about the records. The engineer said that AT&T can tell where a cell phone is located by examining the sector information. He explained, “when a person sets up a call, receives a call, or sends a text, the person does so in communication with…sectors in the cell-phone network…[which] enables [AT&T] to look up the records for a particular phone number…determin[ing] [the] cell phone’s proximity to a cell…tower.” Ford v. State, 444 S.W.3d 171, 190 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2014). This is also true when the phone is not being actively used, as “unanswered texts and calls…automatic downloads….cause the [phone] to…ping the network to alert the network that the [phone] is in a particular…area.” Id.

According to AT&T, Ford’s cell records indicate that the numerous pings place Ford at the party, then at the victim’s condo complex and finally, at his home. The “ping” time frame also matches the timestamps from the camera footage for the unknown white SUV. Id.

The jury found Ford guilty of murder, sentencing him to forty years in prison. Ford appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed the verdict and sentence, relying upon the third party doctrine. Justice Chapa dissented in the court of appeals case, stating, in a nutshell, that Ford retained a reasonable expectation of privacy in his physical movements and location; he did not voluntarily surrender his expectation of privacy; and because the State did not secure a warrant before obtaining the records, Ford’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated. Ford appealed to the Criminal Court of Appeals (“CCA”).

The Big Issue | Privacy of Cell Tower Records

Did the State of Texas’ warrantless acquisition of historical cell-site-location information—recorded by a 3rd party cell-phone service provider—violate the Fourth Amendment? Did Ford have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements and location?

What does the law say about the expectation of privacy in cell phone records? What is the Third Party Doctrine?

The Fourth Amendment Guarantees , “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. CONST. amend. IV. A person may appeal a verdict under a privacy theory if (1) he has a subjective expectation of privacy in the place or object searched, and (2) society…recognize[s] that expectation as reasonable. State v. Granville, 423 S.W.3d, 399, 405 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014).

The Third Party Doctrine allows for acquisition of information revealed to a third party (such as a cell phone company or a bank). Case law reflecting this doctrine suggests that information that must be disclosed [in the normal course of business] for the phone company to provide the requested service, is not off-limits to law enforcement and is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, courts across the United States remain divided on this issue.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Weighs in on Cell Phone Records and the Third Party Doctrine

Here, the CCA says that the DA’s office did not violate Ford’s Fourth Amendment rights because Ford had no legitimate expectation of privacy in records held by AT&T, records kept in the normal course of business, pointing to his location and movements in the past. AT&T uses the records for its own business purposes to improve network functionality. Moreover, phone service providers are required, by the FCC to locate a cell phone when a 911 call is placed. In re Application (Fifth Circuit), 724 F.3d at 611-12. Therefore, “The type of non-content evidence, lawfully created by a third-party telephone company for legitimate business purposes, does not belong to defendant[s], even if it concerns [a defendant].” United States v. Davis, 785 F.3d 498, 511 (11th Cir. 2015) . Acknowledging that Fourth Amendment claims may survive with in the case of GPS devices, or in long-term monitoring of individuals, the CCA affirms, holding, “In the circumstances [of this case], we do not see a jurisprudential reason to stray from the third-party doctrine.”

What could Ford v. State mean for you?

Generally speaking, your cell phone records, by way of the third-party doctrine, are subject to review by law enforcement and could be used against you in criminal proceedings in Texas. The CCA is saying that a reasonable person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her cell tower records.

Fort Worth warrantless cell phone search

No More Warrantless Searches of Cell Phones

By | Search & Seizure

Is it a violation of the 4th Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search & seizure for a police officer to search a suspect’s cell phone without a warrant?

Fort Worth warrantless cell phone searchU.S. Supreme Court Holding: YES – The 4th Amendment prohibits officers from searching a suspects cell phone for information without a warrant.

Riley v. California; U.S. v. Wurie, (Consolidated by the Supreme Court in one case) 2014 U.S. LEXIS 4497 (U.S. June 25, 2014)

Riley v. California: In this case, Police officers arrested Appellant and searched the cell phone he was carrying incident to his arrest. The officers discovered photographs and videos on Appellant’s cell phone that were admitted as evidence against him at trial. As a result, Appellant was convicted. The California Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction, holding that the warrantless search of Appellant’s cell phone incident to his arrest was lawful.

U.S. v. Wurie: In this case, Police officers arrested Appellant for distribution of crack cocaine and seized two cell phones from him. Officers searched the call log on one of the cell phones and determined the phone number labeled “my house” was associated with a nearby apartment. Officers went to the apartment and saw the name “Wurie” written on the mailbox. The officers obtained a warrant, searched the apartment and found drugs and firearms.

Appellant filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized from his apartment, arguing the officers violated the Fourth Amendment by searching his cell phone incident to arrest. In reversing Appellant’s conviction, the First Circuit Court of Appeals held the search incident to arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement did not authorize the warrantless search of data on cell phones seized from individuals arrested by police officers.

The Supreme Court consolidated the cases, holding that police officers generally may not search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested, without first obtaining a warrant.

Previously, the court held police officers could conduct warrantless searches of arrestees and possessions within the arrestees’ control, incident to a custodial arrest. The court concluded such searches were reasonable in order to discover weapons or any evidence on the arrestee’s person so that evidence could not be concealed or destroyed.

The court concluded this rationale does not apply to modern cell phones. First, digital data stored on a cell phone cannot be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or aid an arrestee in escaping. The court emphasized that police officers may still examine the physical aspects of phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon. For example, the court noted a police officer may examine a cell phone to determine whether there is a razor blade hidden between the phone and its case. However, once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential threats the data on the phone cannot harm anyone.

Second, the court stated the government provided little evidence to believe that loss of evidence from a seized cell phone, by remote wiping of the data on the phone, was a common occurrence. Even if remote wiping were a concern, the court listed two ways remote wiping could be prevented. First, the officer could turn the phone off or remove its battery. Second, the officer could put the phone inside a device, called a Faraday bag, that would isolate the phone from radio waves. The court added that Faraday bags are cheap, lightweight, and easy to use and a number of law enforcement agencies already encourage their use. In addition, the court commented that if a police officers are truly confronted with individualized facts suggesting that a defendant’s phone will be the target of an imminent remote wiping attempt, they may be able to rely on exigent circumstances to search that phone immediately.

The court further recognized that cell phones are different from other objects that an arrestee might have on his person. Before cell phones existed, a search of an arrestee generally constituted a small intrusion on the arrestee’s privacy. However, modern cell phones are, in essence, mini-computers that have immense storage capacity on which many people keep a digital record of nearly aspect of their lives. Consequenly, the warrantless search of a cell phone consitutes a significant intrusion upon a person’s privacy. If police officers wish to search a cell phone incident to arrest, they need to obtain a warrant.

Search of cell phones

Limits of the 4th Amendment in an iPhone Culture

By | Drug Crimes

Does the 4th Amendment apply to a Cell Phone Search?

Search of cell phonesBoy, do we love our cellphones.  They are our phone books, our computers, our gaming systems, our cameras, our music players, you name it.  When a person’s cell phone is such a multifaceted device, how can that affect their legal rights under a search warrant?  Read the summary of the case below to find out more about how the 4th Amendment applies to a cell phone search.

United States v. Aguirre, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (Federal), December 13, 2011

In this case, Appellant was convicted of using a communications facility to facilitate a drug trafficking crime in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(b).  On appeal, she challenges the district court’s denial of her motion to suppress evidence, claiming that the search and seizure of her cell phone was tainted by law enforcement officers’ illegal entry into a home where she was a guest.  The 5th Circuit found her arguments unpersuasive and affirmed the judgment.

Federal agents arrested a drug suspect shortly after he drove away from his home and they recovered marijuana and cocaine from his car.  The agents went back to the suspect’s home to conduct a knock and talk interview with the remaining occupants.  After knocking on the door and announcing themselves, the agents received no verbal response but did see a person look through the window, then quickly retreat toward the back of the home.  Fearing the destruction of drug evidence, the officers immediately entered the home without a warrant or consent.  Once inside the home the agents saw marijuana and drug paraphernalia in plain sight.  The agents secured the home and the occupants while they applied for a search warrant.  After obtaining the search warrant, the agents searched Appellant’s cell phone that was lying in plain view on a bed, and discovered several incriminating text messages.

The court held that the agents’ warrantless entry into the home was lawful.  First, they had probable cause to believe it contained evidence of illegal drugs and drug dealing.  Agents had just arrested the first drug suspect, after watching him leave the home, and had recovered marijuana and cocaine from his car.  Second, after knocking and announcing their presence, the reaction of the remaining occupants reasonably caused the agents to believe that evidence was being destroyed.  The agents’ entry into the home was justified by the exigent circumstance of destruction of evidence and supported by probable cause.

Appellant argued that the search and seizure of her cell phone was improper because the warrant did not particularly describe it as one of the items to be seized.  The court noted that while the Fourth Amendment requires that a warrant particularly describe the place to be searched and the person or thing to be seized, each item does not need to be precisely described in the warrant.  The particularity requirement can be satisfied where a seized item is not specifically named in the warrant, but the functional equivalent of other items are adequately described.  Here, the agents were authorized to search for items used to facilitate drug trafficking to include records, correspondence, address books and telephone directories.  While this list did not include cell phones, the court held that cellular text messages, the directory and call logs of Appellant’s cell phone could be characterized as the functional equivalent of several items included in the search warrant such as: correspondence, address books and telephone directories.  Appellant’s cell phone served as the equivalent of records and documentation of sales or other drug activities and as such, the agents lawfully searched it under the authority of the search warrant.

I suppose this ruling was just a matter of time in our iPhone culture.

Warrantless Search of Cell Phone

Warrantless Search of Cell Phone Text Messages

By | Warrantless Search

Warrantless Search of Cell Phone | Fort Worth Criminal Defense Attorneys

Warrantless Search of Cell PhoneCan an arresting officer search a person’s text messages as a “search incident to arrest?” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit said YES in U.S. v. Curtis, but caveats that the search in the case occurred prior to the Supreme Court holding in Arizona v. Gant, 129 S.Ct. 1710 (2009).

United States v. Curtis – In July 2007, officers obtained an arrest warrant for Appellant after he made a false statement on a credit application he submitted to a car dealership. (Seriously?) When the officers arrested Appellant he was driving his vehicle and talking on his cell phone. After he pulled over, Appellant placed the cell phone on the car’s center console. An officer took the phone out of the car and began looking at the text messages on it. Later, while Appellant was being processed at the jail the officer resumed looking at the text messages on the cell phone.

The 5th Circuit held that the search of the cell phone was constitutional since it took place incident to a lawful arrest and it was within Appellant’s reaching distance when the officers arrested him. The court followed U.S. v. Finley, 477 F.3d 250 (5th Cir.), which held that the police could search the contents of an arrestee’s cell phone incident to a valid arrest when it is recovered from the area within an arrestee’s immediate control.

Appellant argued that the officer’s search of the cell phone was unlawful in light of the Supreme Court’s holding in Gant, decided in 2009, which held in part that the police may “search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of arrest.”

The court refused to apply the rule announced by Gant to a search incident to arrest that occurred before Gant was decided. Additionally, the court stated that even if it had ruled the search of the cell phone was unlawful, it would have refused to suppress the text messages under the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. The court noted that the good-faith exception applies to searches that were legal at the time they were conducted, but later determined to be unconstitutional by a subsequent change in the law.

My question is: Why did the officer feel he needed to search Appellant’s text messages? I’m pretty sure the iPhone does not have an app that turns the phone into a dangerous weapon. There should be no reason that the officer needed to conduct such a warrantless search. Luckily, however, this holding is narrow in that it appears that it does not apply to searches conducted after the Supreme Court decision in Gant.

UPDATE: Warrantless searches of cell phones are now unreasonable.